Colin Kaepernick San Francisco 49ersRuthless Sports Guy had a full-fledged conniption fit on Twitter after Joe Flacco’s contract terms were announced on Friday. At first glance, it’s hard to blame him. Six years and $120.6 million makes Flacco the highest-paid player in the NFL, which sounds strange because before the playoffs began Flacco was hardly playing like a top-10 QB, let alone one of the best.

Flacco has guts, however, and that served him incredibly well this week. Instead of agreeing to a contract extension before the season, Flacco played out the final year of his rookie contract. In the playoffs he proved just how little pressure affects him, leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl title while throwing 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the process. Flacco’s career numbers aren’t all that exciting to look at, but he had several things going for him in these negotiations.

  • Flacco has not missed a game since Baltimore drafted him (93 straight starts, including the postseason).
  • The Ravens are 54-26 in the regular season and 9-4 in the playoffs since Flacco arrived.
  • Flacco’s new contract means a $7 million cap hit in 2013 as opposed to $15 million if they were forced to franchise him.
  • Good quarterbacks aren’t exactly easy to find. Once you find one, you keep him (unless someone better comes along).

The 49ers know that last reason pretty well, since it allowed them to *reportedly* land the No. 34 overall pick and a conditional choice in 2014 for Alex Smith. Colin Kaepernick’s ascendance gives the 49ers a high-ceiling quarterback at a bargain-basement price. Courtesy of Spotrac:

Colin Kaepernick contractThat cap hit of less than $1.4 million, along with an already strong core and 15 draft picks to play with, gives the 49ers a great shot at again fielding a strong team in 2013. Same with 2014, when the 49ers move into their new stadium in Santa Clara. Generating revenue won’t be a problem as they build a team for the 2015 season, but navigating the cap will be, assuming Kaepernick’s career continues along the same arc we saw after he made his first start on a Monday night against the Chicago Bears.

The flexibility Kaepernick provides is a reason why the 49ers are able to spend so much on their defense. 49ers COO Paraag Marathe was a panelist at the Sloan Analytics Conference, and he spoke about how the 49ers have been spending their money. From ESPN’s Mike Sando (emphasis mine):

San Francisco led the league in cap dollars allocated to defensive players last season. The decision to re-sign Bowman was made in that context.

“We have the most expensive defense in the league on an average per-year basis, and that is not sustainable over time,” Marathe said. “Because of the cap, if every veteran on the team took a 15 percent discount on their market value, you couldn’t field that team still under the cap because the difference between wholesale [draft] and retail [free agency] is so wide.

“You have to figure out which players to keep and which players to let move on and churn out. Because you have to continue to replenish the system.”

Dashon Goldson’s situation comes to mind. The Pro Bowl free safety is a player the 49ers value. Coach Jim Harbaugh recently called Goldson the type of player a team wants to reward. But will the economics make sense in the end?

Sando makes a good point about Goldson, an unrestricted free agent we’ve been writing about quite a bit since the season ended. The 49ers could probably afford to keep him if they wanted to (although I don’t think they do), in part because Alex Smith’s $8.5 million cap hit has been removed. But fitting in expensive defenders won’t be so easy in a couple years.

The 49ers could be proactive and work out an extension with Kaepernick that will give him a (presumably) much-deserved raise from his rookie deal and keep him around at an annual number that would probably be below market value. The Packers did this with Aaron Rodgers in 2008, signing him to a 6-year, $63.5 million deal that keeps him under team control through 2014. Incidentally, Rodgers’ brother Luke caused a stir by comparing Flacco to Ryan Fitzpatrick on Twitter after news of Flacco’s deal broke. Gotta love loudmouthed siblings of pro athletes…

Several important 49ers will be free agents in 2015 along with Kaepernick, including Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Aldon Smith. Figuring out a way to keep their franchise quarterback at a reasonable cap number will be Marathe’s greatest challenge as the 49ers hope to remain Super Bowl contenders. San Francisco will probably look to extend Kaepernick in the same way Green Bay did with Rodgers. With Flacco hitting the jackpot after gambling on himself this past season, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kaepernick decides to do the same.